Education is guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution but, in practice, children with autism are excluded from the education system and do not benefit from this right. Despite the law that grants children with disabilities the right to access public schools, the law fails to acknowledge children with autism. They should not be denied their constitutional rights. This policy brief addresses the state’s indifference and the lack of education for autistic children.
The right to education for all citizens is guaranteed by the Constitution and international agreements signed by the Tunisian State. But, in practice, it remains exclusive for a certain category of children as autistic children today find themselves unable to access public schools.
According to the World Health Organisation, “Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of complex brain development disorders.” This condition is a major challenge for the international community which tries to integrate people with this disorder into all levels of society, from the education system to the labour market. Today, the Tunisian state is unable to integrate autistic children into the education system. This is primarily due to the lack of suitable legislation because the condition is not fully recognised or categorized as a disability but also these children are not considered to be fully capable citizens. Authorities have failed to provide a classification or definition for children with autism in Tunisian legislation. To remedy this failure, this policy brief provides practical solutions.
Diagnosing the extent of the problem
Thousands are not recognised by the state
The number of autistic children who have reached the age to enter primary schools continues to increase. Tunisia has more than 6,000 autistic children yet the state seems indifferent and these children are still excluded from the education system. This is an infringement of the legal system starting with the constitution which gives all citizens equality in rights and duties (Article 21) and states that education is compulsory until the age of 16 (Article 39).
Autistic children are not protected by the law
The initial problem is the non-recognition of autism. Tunisian law fails to recognise autism and the word autism does not appear in any official legal text. The Tunisian legislature, the guarantor of rights for all Tunisians, has failed to include the category of autistic.
The Tunisian authorities group autism under the same “mental handicap” umbrella, but this classification is inaccurate and superficial. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are diverse but consist of two major categories, one of which is problems with communication and interaction. Autistic children are therefore considered disabled for a condition that can be managed with the necessary consideration. Instead, autistic children in Tunisia have a condition that is not suitably recognised by the law. Tunisia has signed international treaties which define and regulate autism so it is time to remedy this contradiction and fill the legislative void in the official texts.
The Tunisian education system is not suitable for children with autism
The education system does not account for the needs of autistic children. This is not only reflected in state schools’ denial of their existence but also in the lack of equipment and adequate infrastructure for people with this disorder. There is only one state-run center for young people with autism, but this center cannot accommodate more than 6,000 students. In addition, this center does not provide training or an equivalent diploma. All other centers are private and are expensive or often overcrowded. Securing a place in one of these centers is subject to conditions that are neither transparent, fair nor equitable. Alarmingly, these schools are not equipped to be suitable for children with autism, neither in terms of supplies nor staff. If Tunisian law considered autistic children to be disabled, they could enjoy the same rights as disabled children. But as there is no specific law for their condition and their rights, it cannot be enforced. This constitutes a violation of the Organic Law 2005-83 of August 15, 2005, relating to the promotion and protection of persons with disabilities.
Children who lack family and education system support need help
Children who lack family support have always been an issue that the state has never known how to deal with. Despite the initiatives of civil society activists in the educational sector, there is still a considerable lack of awareness regarding the situation of children with autism within state institutions. There are no exact statistics on the number of children with autism without family support because this study has not been conducted. But these children, who are subjected to the double discrimination of insufficient social support and lack of recognition for their condition, are left in school and societal exile. Autistic children who lack family support currently find themselves without legal protection for their social condition. The Child Protection Code, Law 72-1999 relating to integrated centers for young people and children and Ordinance Law 2796-1999 relating to the regulation of administrative and financial centers integrated for youth and children and their educational and social councils, and the conditions of admission and placement of children, are the official texts related to the situation of children without family support. They do not mention the situation of autism or children with learning difficulties.
Exploitative private autism centers
Children with autism have suffered from state neglect and also abuse in private institutions. In these parallel, for-profit institutions, children have been subject to violence from unskilled employees who lack the necessary tools and training to work with them. A shocking video of a teacher at an education center for autistic children caused a public stir after it was shared on social media. However, it went unnoticed by the Ministry of Education.
Create special classes in public schools to integrate children ‘on the spectrum’
The creation of special classes for children with learning difficulties, such as autism, is a mandatory step for their integration into the public school system. This kind of class will allow these students to gradually integrate into ordinary school life. The provisions of Organic Law No. 83 of 2005 regarding the promotion and protection of disabled people must be implemented. Revision of this law is also a necessity today to include autism. The French “handicap” law of February 11, 2005 is a very good example from which the legislator can draw inspiration to rectify Tunisian law. It is, therefore, necessary to conduct a financial review. The finance law must consider the needs of autistic children and provide the necessary means for their education.
Support within educational institutions
The education of students with autism requires support from within the educational system. Therefore, specialists need to be integrated into schools and more teaching assistants, that support autistic children, need to be recruited. The presence of other specialists, such as child psychiatrists and speech therapists, is equally important. The presence of child psychiatrists to monitor schoolchildren’s integration, every month, is also necessary. One child psychiatrist per municipal area would be sufficient. Also, speech therapists, many of whom are unemployed, could be recruited by state institutions once a week to ease the cost to parents and the state both. A visit by a Child Protection Officer is necessary once a month.
Create public medical-educational establishments in each governorate
As ASD is a complex group of disorders, autistic children often require different treatment depending on the specificity of their case. For example, some require support with verbal communication, others may need behavioural support. Thus the integration, for some, in the public school system is an insurmountable challenge. Therefore, medical-educational centres should be established to meet the educational needs of these students. The institutions must exist in all the governorates and be included in each year’s finance law. These institutions should be linked directly to the municipality’s budget and managed by the municipality to ensure transparency. There should be 24 centres to allow children with autism to integrate into an educational system that is suitable for the specificities of their condition. To facilitate the creation and reduce the cost of these institutions, they can be supported by the work of student interns and volunteers in partnership with international organizations.
Review of the situation of children without family support
The situation of children without family support requires updating laws to conform with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (New York, December 13, 2006) signed by Tunisia on March 30, 2007, and ratified on April 2, 2008. A teaching assistant in a childcare institution for children without family support will facilitate their integration and help the rest of the children with learning difficulties. To obtain accurate statistics on the number of children with autism, more testing and diagnoses must take place in schools.
To ensure autistic children are protected from abuse, surveillance is mandatory. Therefore, surveillance cameras, controlled by Child Protection Officers in each governorate.
To the legislature
- Revise Law n° 2005-83 on the promotion and protection of disabled people based on the disability.
- Repeal Law n° 1999-72 relating to centers for young people and children and replace it with a law that aligns with Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- Ensure the finance law includes a commitment to improving the situation of autistic people by implementing the following recommendations.
To the Ministry of Women, Family and the Elderly
- Conduct nationwide studies to determine the number of young people with autism.
- Assign this research to child protection delegates.
To the Ministry of Education
- After reviewing the study provided by the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Education can implement an integration policy through the creation of a special class curriculum for schools with a high number of autistic children.
- Increase recruitment of teaching assistants in specialized institutions. This will help reduce graduate unemployment.
- Create school medical centers with the cooperation of the Ministry of Health.
To the Ministry of Higher Education
- Cooperate with the Ministry of Education to guarantee end-of-study internships for people studying how to support autistic children in specialized classes or school health centers e.g. teaching assistants, psychologists, speech therapists.
To civil society and social movements
- Integrate the State-created centers into volunteer programs launched by national and international NGOs
- Conduct awareness campaigns to encourage parents to enrol their children in the nearest medical-educational establishments, which will speed up state studies.
- Inform UN institutions in Tunisia, such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), about the plight of children with autism who are not in school to support research on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
World Health Organisation (2019) Autism spectrum disorders (ASD). https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/autism-spectrum-disorders-(asd)  https://www.assabah.news/عددهم-ناهز-6000-أطفال-التوحد-صرختهم-لا-يصل/ Tunisia’s Constitution of 2014. Constitue Project.org. https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Tunisia_2014.pdf Orientation law n ° 2005-83 of August 15, 2005, relating to the promotion and protection of disabled people. http://www.emploi.nat.tn/upload/docs/legislation%20loi%20handicape%202005.pdf  Law n ° 72 of 1999 of July 26, 1999 relating to integrated centers for young people and children: http://www.legislation.tn/sites/default/files/codes/Enfant.pdf Ordinance No. 2796 of 1999, of December 13, 1999, on the administrative and financial regulation of integrated centers for youth and children and their educational and social councils, and on the conditions of admission and placement of children http://www.legislation.tn/fr/detailtexte/Loi-num-1999-72-du—-jort-1999-061__1999061000721?shorten=VEaw France 24 (2018) Tunisia: autistic people abused. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29ybqf7yZwk  French “handicap” law of February 11, 2005 https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/loda/id/JORFTEXT000000809647/